'Missing' South Carolina Boater Stages Death to Avoid Drug Charges

Searchers spent days looking for Julius "Butch" Nesbitt after his empty 14-foot boat was found beached along the South Carolina coast. Now, sitting in a jail 600 miles away, he admits faking his death as he fled from drug charges.

Nesbitt spent more than six weeks on the run before authorities tracked him to a friend's home in western Indiana, where police say he had a fake driver's license and thousands of dollars in counterfeit cash.

Nesbitt said he orchestrated his "death" after South Carolina authorities filed drug charges against him, then threatened him with a long prison term by turning over the case to federal authorities.

"It was pretty much spur of the moment. It was either that or face prison the rest of my life, is how I saw it," he told The Associated Press during a jailhouse interview Thursday.

Nesbitt, 58, was reported missing Nov. 24 after he didn't return from a fishing trip. His boat was found in an inlet about 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach. Inside were his wallet, some clothes and one shoe.

The Coast Guard and South Carolina agencies searched by boat and aircraft for him in an effort that cost at least $170,000.

Nesbitt's sister, Julie Clark, said she learned he was alive in text messages sent Tuesday night from his girlfriend. "We go(t) caught, in jail," the first message said. "Me and B in jail," another said.

"First I just thought she was playing a joke or mixed up or something," Clark said.

Word that Nesbitt was alive shocked the family, which spent weeks looking for him.

"They were out there night and day searching for him and it was really cold," Clark said. "So, you hate that they went though all of that for him staging this or whatever he did."

Nesbitt said he didn't have a plan when he left South Carolina and declined to reveal where he'd been before spending about a week in Indiana. He said he called a friend in Terre Haute asking for a place to stay, but never told him about the death hoax.

"I told him I just needed to come to visit," Nesbitt said. "I wasn't planning on staying very long."

Deputies from the U.S. Marshals Service showed up Tuesday in Terre Haute with a warrant for Nesbitt's arrest and led local police to a small, weather-beaten home. They found him inside with his girlfriend, who had reported him missing.

"He was throwing money bags throughout the house, trying to get rid of them," police Detective David Thompson said.

Investigators counted at least $57,000 in counterfeit $100, $50 and $20 bills, Thompson said. Nesbitt and two other men at the house were arrested on counterfeiting charges, and his girlfriend, Cynthia Hernandez Powell, was jailed on a South Carolina warrant charging her with failing to report a felony crime.

Powell, 46, of Andrews, S.C., told investigators Nesbitt called her about two weeks after his disappearance and that she met him in South Carolina before heading to Indiana.

"She said that was the first she knew that he was alive," Thompson said. "She says they wouldn't let her leave. We're finding other stories that contradict that, that she had left."

Powell declined an interview request through jail officials. Both Powell, who has no arrest record in South Carolina, and Nesbitt are being held pending possible extradition to South Carolina.

Nesbitt sounded distressed as he talked about Powell's involvement.

"I didn't force her, but she didn't know what was going on," he said. "I've gotten her in whole world of trouble, too. I hate for somebody else to be in trouble for what I've done."

Nesbitt has a criminal record in South Carolina dating from 1967, when he was convicted at age 18 of grand larceny of an auto. He also spent time behind bars in the 1970s on convictions for larceny and receiving stolen property and was put on probation in 1987 for chop shop law violations, records show.

Messages seeking comment on how authorities tracked Nesbitt to Terre Haute were not returned Thursday by Marshals Service spokesmen in Indiana and South Carolina.

Nesbitt said he didn't know how he was found. Terre Haute police knew nothing about Nesbitt until contacted by the U.S. Marshals Service, Thompson said.

"We've had counterfeit money passed, but with as much as they had, you'd think they would have been passing it everywhere," he said.

Nesbitt said he alone was to blame for the counterfeit cash and that it was simply "a way to live" while on the run. "Nobody else was involved with that besides me," he said.

He said he regrets subjecting his family to the distress of thinking he was dead. He hadn't talked with any relatives since his capture but was expecting his sister to visit him in jail Saturday.

He declined to discuss what he would say to her. "I don't really want it come out in the paper until I see her," he said.